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Beijing grapples with Shinzo Abe's mixed legacy on China-Japan relations after former prime minister is shot dead

·5 min read

Chinese officials have expressed their condolences following the assassination of the former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe - but the reaction from social media users was far more mixed, reflecting the up-and-down relationship between the two countries during his terms in office.

Hashtags about the shooting became the hottest topic on Chinese social media on Friday but some platforms closed comments to avoid controversy over Abe's visits to a shrine honouring Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals.

Chinese government officials expressed their shock and expressed sympathy for the longest serving post-war Japanese prime minister.

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"Former prime minister Abe contributed to the improvement and development of China-Japan relations during his tenure in office. We express our condolences on his passing and our condolences to his family," a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Japan said in a statement.

Abe, 67, served two separate terms in the top job, including a near eight-year run from 2012 to 2020 - the longest uninterrupted stint in power for a Japanese leader in the post-war era.

His reputation in China was mixed, with some criticising him as an extreme nationalist while others praised his efforts to improve relations. Recently the foreign ministry in Beijing accused him of talking "nonsense" after he warned Beijing that an attack on Taiwan would be "suicidal".

Diplomatic observers said Abe had tried to strike a balance when handling Japan's relationship with China and the United States, but had helped improve relations with Beijing.

In October 2006, less than one month after he first became prime minister, Abe visited China, a trip the then president Hu Jintao described as a "turning point" in the relationship between the two countries.

Abe stepped down for health reasons in 2007 and returned to office in December 2012 at a time when relations between the two countries were at a low point following the Japanese government's decision to nationalise the disputed Diaoyu Islands, which are known as the Senkakus in Japan.

Tensions further escalated in 2013 when Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine to pay tribute to Japan's second world war dead in 2013, triggering furious reactions from Beijing, which said he was "not welcome" to visit the country.

But ties between China and Japan started improving the following year. In a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sideline of the Apec summit in Beijing, Abe said both nations should not let their individual problems "damage the overall relationship".

In the next few years, Abe met Xi several times and he called for the resumption of a Japan-China security dialogue after a four-year suspension.

Tetsuya Yamagami is seen holding a weapon (bottom-right) as he is detained near the site of Shinzo Abe's shooting in Nara on Friday. Photo: Kyodo News via AP alt=Tetsuya Yamagami is seen holding a weapon (bottom-right) as he is detained near the site of Shinzo Abe's shooting in Nara on Friday. Photo: Kyodo News via AP>

China and Japan maintained close high-level engagements during Abe's second time in the office, when he met Xi at least nine times. He visited China again in 2018 - the first state visit to Beijing by a Japanese leader in eight years.

Xi had been planning to visit Japan in 2020, but the trip was postponed following the Covid-19 outbreak and Abe stepped down, again for health reasons, later that year.

The last time the two met in 2019, Abe said he hoped the two countries would continue "ceaseless exchanges".

Even though Abe's attempts to amend Japan's pacifist post-war constitution had alarmed Beijing, diplomatic observers said the relationship between the two countries had become more stable under Abe.

Hu Jiping, vice-president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said he had helped "put relations back on track" based on his "realistic" approach.

He said Donald Trump had moved to distance the US from Japan and "during that period Japan sought to be more active in improving relations with China".

After stepping down, Abe continued to make his presence felt as the leader of a powerful faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on domestic and foreign issues.

His increasingly vocal criticisms of China angered Beijing, including a warning against trying to take Taiwan by force.

A mainland Chinese invasion of Taiwan would constitute a significant threat to Japan and "therefore an emergency for the Japan-US alliance", he said last December.

"People in Beijing, especially President Xi Jinping, should never fail to recognise this."

Abe's outspokenness prompted the nationalistic tabloid Global Times to accuse Abe of becoming "more unrestrained in unleashing his anti-China energy".

Lian Degui, director of the department of Japanese studies at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said Beijing's views on Abe had changed significantly over time.

"The most important thing for Abe as PM was to win support from the left and right wings of the party, so he didn't completely satisfy the conservatives during his term," he said.

"But his remarks and behaviour totally represented the conservative view after he stepped down, and there might be no other person who can be as influential as him."

Lian added: "There were several visits by the two leaders and there were no major conflicts for years [during his second term]."

However, he said Abe's "unbridled remarks" about Taiwan in recent years had alarmed Beijing.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.